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Is the concept of a smart city … dead?

January 23, 2024

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To be honest, we’ve been talking about smart cities and the overall smart city concept for a very long time. In the utilities business, it’s been around since the formation of EPRI’s IntelliGrid program and the very beginnings of smarter grid technology and the questions of what to do with all the data from those and how to use that data. When we answered those questions about data, we found that we could be even smarter by hooking together other departments that make up city government and public works. But we came to that epiphany over two decades ago.

Since that epiphany, there’s been a lot of talk about smart cities—a lot of white papers written on the subject, a lot of associations formed (and occasionally abandoned) about it, a lot of collaborations on how we can make it all work, and even a large number of pilots that focused on either minor niche readjustments to existing large cities or pie-in-the-sky dreams of still-to-be-built urban utopias that, like EPCOT (which also got it’s start in that utopia fantasy) didn’t quite work out in real life the way it was planned on paper.

So, it all begs the question: This far down the road, with all that talk under our belt and no proudly labeled smart cities in sight, is the smart city concept dead?

I’d venture the short answer there is: yes. Yes, the concept of the smart city is no longer—that pie-in-the-sky thinking is gone forever, a relic of the past. (There is a fabulous piece from MIT Technology Review on what happened in real life to a pie-in-the-sky smart city dream in Toronto. You can read that here.)

In reality, though, it’s more layered. While an antiquated, utopian smart city was always a thing of pure fiction (like that original Disney EPCOT vision), what has developed from all that smart city dreaming is practical, personal, and vital to just about every community in the world. The smart city as a concept is dead; the smart city as a reality is very much alive, if in a stage of growing pains, because we’ve adopted it where it was helpful and realized at this point where we, perhaps, waxed a little too poetic.

But, the metaphorical death of a never-super-practical, never-people-driven original smart city concept doesn’t mean we’ve chucked baby and bathwater out together. In reality, there are many valuable and practical parts and elements of smart cities that we kept.

The smart city is alive in those smart grid concepts like synchrophasors that bring in data down the line and help prevent outages and make maintenance easier, cheaper, and more efficient … and, in the end, keep people’s lights on. It’s alive in the platforms that now connect permitting departments in small cities to the field workers hired to get the job done … and help people get through processes faster. It’s alive in online portals that allow every citizen of a community to check bills, due dates, deposits, and deposits from miles away … and help people make the management of their everyday lives just plain easier.

The smart city is alive in every aspect that touches and helps people.

So, in reality, the smart city concept has evolved and adapted. It’s become a part of consumer/prosumer expectations around an increasingly digital and interconnected world.

At ESC Partners, we believe every city is on a smart city journey to better serve their citizens—every single city around the world, including yours. But the very heart of every single one of those journeys is people.

While the smart city dreamer’s ideal is gone, what’s in its place works—and should work for you in a million different ways you never expected. Truth be told, I guarantee you’ve either got a software project going that would be considered part of a smart city or you’re planning one—no matter where you work inside of city government or public works.

But the ones moving forward and gaining traction are the people-centric ones, the ones that help, the ones that make the community better—the ones that are hometown smart, as we like to say here at ESC. Learn more about how we can help your utility with people-centric smart city planning and processes right here.


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